March 25, 2012

Saints Sign ex-Falcons MLB Lofton

Despite a reported shortage on cap space, the Saints have agreed to sign MLB Curtis Lofton away from the Atlanta Falcons.

Lofton is the Saints' fourth free agent acquisition despite limited cap space - other moves including releases or contract restructures could be announced soon.  The new five-year contract for Lofton is almost certainly backloaded to put most of its value into later seasons.  The NFL is expected to great increase the salary cap in 2014 and beyond.

UPDATE: ESPN reports that Lofton's five-year deal is worth a maximum of $33.5 million with all possible incentives.  Overall, the deal averages $5.5 million per season and included a $5 million signing bonus.  With a minimum base salary of only $700,000 as expected, Lofton's cap hit is only $1.7 million in 2012.  Lofton is to receive a $5 million roster bonus in 2013, and he will count against the Saints' cap for $7.1 million next season.  The fifth year of the contract has a $6 million base salary.

With the new defensive regime in place led by new Falcons DC Mike Nolan, the Atlanta team has apparently decided that Lofton wasn't the best fit in the new system.  Lofton's weakness are in pass coverage, but he was a core part of the Falcons' tough run defense.  Lofton has developed and improved each year in Atlanta, including his pass defense skills.  But word out of Atlanta is that Nolan viewed Lofton as a two-down linebacker, motivation for sure this season for Lofton.

Numerous teams were interested in him, including divisional rival Tampa Bay, Detroit, and the New York Giants.

Lofton had minor surgeries on both knees in 2011 but maintained pace with 96 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 2011.

An All-Pro at home-state school Oklahoma, he broke the school record by recording eight 10+ tackle games.  As a senior, he scored two touchdowns, one a fumble and another an interception, and intercepted Saints backup QB Chase Daniel in the 2007 Big 12 Championship game on the way to a Sooner victory. He was named Big 12 AP Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.

His instincts have been since high school superb - he recorded a 180-tackle season in high school as a natural middle linebacker.

He was Atlanta's second round pick in 2008, three slots ahead of where the Saints picked Indiana CB Tracy Porter.

Lofton, 26, 6'0, 241, has not missed a game in four years and was an immediate starter as a rookie, leading the team in tackles each year since 2009.   In eight games against the Saints, Lofton has 48 tackles, including a 12-tackle performance in 2009 in the Superdome.  He scored his first NFL touchdown in his final game as a Falcon, intercepting Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman and returning it 26 yards for a touchdown.

How will Lofton and Jonathan Vilma coexist as Saints?

Any doubts that Jonathan Vilma's time as a Saint are limited are now confirmed.  With limited pass coverage skills, Lofton isn't likely a full-time match at outside linebacker, though Saints GM Mickey Loomis mentioned playing him at strongside.  This could have been simple deflection for skepticism about Vilma's future.  The expensive linebacker had a down year because of knee problems and is facing what will likely be the stiffest of suspensions of any bounty-tied player.

Should Vilma be suspended for the season, he'd not count against the Saints' salary cap - a factor that could be the only reason the Saints are keeping Vilma on board.  If, thanks to the suspension, they could keep Vilma on board and delay the decision on his future until next offseason, the Saints will.

It would be an interesting and difficult challenge for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to keep both Vilma and the younger, healthier Lofton on the field, or roster, at the same time.  Vilma's contract would seem impossible to justify for a rotational or part-time player.

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